After 19 years as pastoral associate at Rochester’s Holy Cross Parish, Sister Kathleen O’Connell will enter a brave new world when she becomes pastoral administrator at St. Mary’s Parish in Waterloo this June. The leadership role follows many years of teaching as well as campus and parish ministry for the 64-year-old Sister of Mercy.
“I’m excited about it. I guess I saw it as another opportunity to use my gifts and talents,” Sister O’Connell said.
This will mark Sister O’Connell’s first assignment as a pastoral administrator, as well as the first time St. Mary’s has been led by someone other than a priest. She will take the helm exactly 10 years after Sister of St. Joseph Anne Michelle McGill set out into even less-charted waters in 1994 by becoming the first pastoral administrator in diocesan history.
Sister McGill, 74, recalled that back then, neither she – nor the parishioners of St. Gabriel in Hammondsport, to whom she still ministers – could predict what lay ahead.
“They were more or less open to the idea, but had no understanding what it was all about,” Sister McGill said.
Mary Lou O’Connor, St. Gabriel’s secretary/bookkeeper, recalled that the parish community sensed Sister McGill’s appointment was a step in the right direction. It followed many months of temporary priest assignments, bringing into question whether St. Gabriel’s could survive without a permanent pastor.
“That’s when we realized they weren’t kidding about the priest shortage, that there aren’t priests up there in Rochester with nothing to do on the weekends,” O’Connor remarked. “We very much wanted to pioneer the pastoral-administrator model to allow us to continue as a small and independent parish.”
Before long, Sister McGill and her new parish were thriving. These days at St. Gabriel’s, volunteerism is widespread and parish membership is on the rise. “The people are so excited because there are young people in church now. They say they hardly ever saw young people in church,” Sister McGill noted.
St. Gabriel’s success under Sister McGill’s watch set the tone for substantial growth of this leadership model. The diocese currently has 14 pastoral administrators serving in permanent assignments – more than twice as many as just four years ago. Several more people are serving as temporary pastoral administrators, or are entered in a diocesan-approved pool from which appointments are made.
This trend doesn’t surprise Father Michael Conboy, diocesan director of priest personnel. “We have an aging clergy and declining vocations. It seems inevitable,” he said, adding that recruitment of extern priests has also been increased to address the shortage.
Yet Father Conboy is quick to emphasize that the decision to appoint pastoral administrators is far more than a Band-Aid solution. He pointed out that these parish leaders successfully manage challenging situations, such as multiple parishes and parish schools.
“I think people are generally appreciative of the work done by pastoral administrators,” he remarked.
According to O’Connor, the folks in Hammondsport certainly are most appreciative of Sister McGill’s efforts.
“She is loved. There’s no two ways about it,” O’Connor said.
A growing option
A pastoral administrator is a person other than a priest who maintains day-to-day operation of a parish, carrying out most duties a priest-pastor would. According to Barbara Pedeville, diocesan director of management and staff services, each candidate must have a master’s degree in theology or a related field, as well as seven years’ experience in a collaborative parish staff setting. Among the key personal qualifications are leadership, business skills and ministerial abilities.
Those who qualify are entered into the pastoral-administrator pool. Pool members may apply on an equal footing with priests for all pastoral openings in the diocese; this policy took effect in 2001. The appointments of pastoral administrators are determined by a board of diocesan officials, with final approval coming from Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
Each permanent assignment lasts four years and can be renewed twice, with a limit of 12 years at any one parish. Each parish being led by a pastoral administrator also is assigned a priest who serves as sacramental minister, working in close conjunction with the pastoral administrator. “There has to be a true collaboration,” Pedeville said of the expected relationship.
Most of the pastoral administrators and pool members in this diocese are lay women, including a large percentage of women religious, while five of the six men are deacons. Pedeville explained that most lower-level parish staff positions – in which individuals can gain the required experience for becoming a pastoral administrator -are occupied by women.
Sister O’Connell noted that she, like many other women religious, is moving into pastoral leadership after years of serving in nonleadership situations. “It’s a different life, or role. Maybe this kind of leadership role will entice other people to the religious life,” she speculated.
Whether use of the pastoral-administrator model will continue to spread is uncertain. At this point, Pedeville said the diocese will not actively recruit for the pastoral-administrator pool until the availability of sacramental coverage is more definite.
“You still have to have a priest to have a viable parish,” she said.
Pedeville and Father Conboy also pointed out that the Vatican still prefers to see priests as parish leaders. “For all the parishes, we would like to appoint a priest pastor. But that’s not always possible,” Father Conboy said.
Many times, parishes don’t know until the actual appointment whether they’re getting a pastor or pastoral administrator. “The best candidate is chosen. It’s not only who’s available, but who’s the best candidate?” Father Conboy said.
Even though the Rochester Diocese has 10 years of experience working with this model, uncertainty still exists about someone other than a priest running a parish. When a parish is getting a pastoral administrator for the first time, Pedeville said she often enters the discussion to help allay concerns.
Pedeville acknowledged that “when you’ve had one model all your life, the fear of the unknown is a very natural reaction,” saying that many dioceses in the United States still refrain from using pastoral administrators in any fashion.
Once people get past their initials doubts, however, Pedeville said they usually embrace the model. Although a handful of diocesan parishes have switched back to priest pastors after having pastoral administrators, she said relatively few shifts have taken place in pastoral-administrator assignments thus far. And, noting that Sister McGill will reach her 12-year term limit in 2006, Pedeville said, “I’ve had people from Hammondsport already say they want another pastoral administrator.”
Sister McGill acknowledged that some people left St. Gabriel’s when she arrived in 1994. But by deciding to walk with the parish, rather than administer it from afar, she has gained many more parishioners than she’s lost.
“My style is the whole idea of the people are the church. I try very, very hard to involve the people in every aspect of church,” Sister McGill said, citing her support of such recent efforts as refurbishing the church’s Stations of the Cross as well as a handiwork ministry, through which several parishioners do volunteer repair work in the community.
Sister O’Connell, also, plans to emphasize empowerment, based on her observations of Father Thomas Wheeland, her longtime pastor at Holy Cross Parish. “I’ve learned from watching Father to trust people. You give them a task, step back and let them do it – maybe not the way you would do it, but letting them use their talents,” she said.
More important than anything else, Sister O’Connell said, is being available to her parish community: “I hope that I would be somebody they could come to.”
So far so good, based on her initial contact with the folks in Waterloo. “I felt they were very warm, very encouraging, very open to my presence,” she said.